50 years ago this week, the Beatles recorded “From Me to You,” their first undisputed No. 1. Below, MacDonald describes how the song proved the Beatles’ professionalism as songwriters.
Though Lennon and McCartney wrote a substantial number of songs between 1957 and 1962,* their confidence in all but a few of them was low. The majority of the group’s pre-1963 act consisted of other people’s material with only an apologetic leavening of Lennon-McCartney originals. Realizing the weakness of his protégés’ existing catalogue, George Martin advised them to come up with more hits without delay, a plea repeated with added urgency when “Please Please Me” began to move in large quantities. They wasted little time. Based on the letters page of New Musical Express (“From You To Us”), “From Me to You” was written on the Helen Shapiro tour bus on Feb. 28, 1963—the group’s first custom-built Beatles song as Parlophone artists.
Dismissed in most accounts of their career as a transitional time-marker between “Please Please Me” and “She Loves You,” “From Me to You” was actually a brilliant consolidation of the emerging Beatles sound,** holding the No. 1 position for seven weeks (the longest occupation of this place by any of their eighteen British No. 1 singles apart from “Hello, Goodbye” and “Get Back”). That it was specifically designed to accomplish this testifies to the canny practicality of the group’s songwriting duo. Like most of Lennon and McCartney’s few recorded full 50-50 collaborations, “From Me to You” proceeds in the two-bar phrases a pair of writers typically adopt when tentatively ad-libbing at each other. The usual result of such a synthetic process, in which neither contributor is free to develop the melody-line in his normal way, is a competition to produce surprising developments of the initial idea. As in “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the variation surprise in “From Me to You” consists of a sudden falsetto octave leap, a motif first tried on the chorus of “Please Please Me” (itself rewritten in this to-and-fro fashion).
“From Me to You” demonstrates The Beatles’ pop professionalism, only the functionality of McCartney’s bass part betraying that less than a week had elapsed between writing and recording it. Echoing the wit they were displaying in their TV and radio interviews, their deftness and adaptability in the studio was already far beyond the reach of their immediate competitors.
By now, it was clear that something unprecedented and unpredictable was happening and, as the song raced to the top of the U.K. singles chart during the summer of 1963, a change could be felt in the atmosphere of English life. With sex newly an acceptable social topic courtesy of Vassall, Ward, Keeler, and James Bond, the frank physicality of The Beatles’ music—epitomized by Lennon’s mocking leer, lazy strum, and open-legged stance at the microphone—had arrived at exactly the right time.*** As the nation's centre of gravity slid from upper lip to lower hip, a degree of Dionysiac abandon was only to be expected, yet the shrill gales of ululation which began to greet the announcement of the group’s names before their live appearances took even The Beatles by surprise. Girls had been squirming about and screaming at their pop idols since Presley first pumped his pelvis at them in 1956, but what was happening now was mass hysteria. Jess Conrad, a typical ‘teen idol’ of the period, recalls appearing with the group on a pop show around this time: “I did my record and the girls went crazy as usual—but when The Beatles went on the place exploded! I thought ‘These boys really have it.’ ” This orgiastic release of erotic energy dammed up during the repressive ’50s—ceaseless avian shrilling so loud that the bands, standing only yards away from their amplifiers, could barely hear what they were playing—was soon greeting every ‘beat’ group to bob up in The Beatles’ wake.